The Martyrdom of St. John Fisher for his Defense of Marriage Against Divorce
by The Rev. W. H. Cologan
(Much light has been thrown upon the subject of the present brief memoir through the research of the Rev. T. E. Bridget, C.SS.R., who in his Life of the Blessed John Fisher has. brought forward much that was hitherto unknown and has corrected much in the received biographies of the martyr that was unauthentic. Our own little biography has been revised in conformity with Father Bridgett’s excellent work.)
John Fisher was born at Beverley, Yorkshire, probably in the year 1459, and was the eldest son of Robert Fisher, a well-to-do merchant of that then flourishing town, and of Agnes his wife. After completing his early studies at the school attached to the Minster Church of Beverley, he was sent to Michael House, Cambridge, and placed under the care of William de Melton, a tutor of great ability. This was in 1484; in 1487 he took his degree of B.A., and was elected fellow of his College soon after, and in 1491 became M.A. in which year he was appointed Vicar of Northallerton in Yorkshire. He only held this benefice for three years, for in 1494 he was made Proctor of his University; and three years after that, was appointed Master of Michael House. In 1501 the degree of D.D. was conferred upon him, and he was elected Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University.
About 1497, the Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and mother of the then reigning king, Henry VII., having heard of Fisher’s holiness and learning, appointed him her confessor and almoner. This she was influenced by his advice in the most important matters. It was through his direction that she founded the two “Lady Margaret” Professorships of Divinity, one at Oxford, the other at Cambridge; and endowed two Colleges, St. John’s and Christ’s College, at the latter University. Dr. Fisher himself was appointed first Margaret Professor of Divinity, in 1503.
In 1504, Richard Fitzjames, Bishop of Rochester, was transferred to the bishopric of Chichester, and by a Bull dated October 14, 1504, Dr. Fisher was appointed by Pope Julius II. Bishop of Rochester. Rochester was the poorest of all the English sees, the income amounting to only 300 a year, and it would be naturally expected that a prelate of such reputation would soon be advanced to a richer and more important diocese. And indeed the bishoprics of Lincoln and Ely were offered to him not long after, but the holy man declined to leave a diocese which had no other fault than its poverty. Thus he continued in this see till his death.
In the same year, 1504, he was elected Chancellor of Cambridge University, and was re-elected annually till 1514, when, contrary to the usual custom, he was appointed for life. Whilst he was Chancellor, Prince Henry, afterwards Henry VIII., was under his care, and this Prince, during the earlier and better part of his reign, had a great respect for his former tutor, and was much influenced by him.
In April, 1509, Henry VII. died, and Bishop Fisher, one of the first preachers of the day, delivered the sermon at his funeral; he had to perform the same office for his great patroness, the Countess of Richmond, who died in July of the same year. These two sermons were published and still exist, and they fully justify Dr. Fisher’s reputation as a preacher.
Henry VIII. ascended the throne on April 22, 1509, and married a few months later, by dispensation granted by Pope Julius II., Catharine of Arragon, the widow of his elder brother Arthur, a lady of singular virtue. But some years after, the King tired of his wife, who had given him no surviving male issue, and in love with Anne Boleyn, affected to have scruples about his marriage, and solicited the Pope for a divorce from Catharine, on the ground that the Papal dispensation through which they had married was invalid. The cause of the divorce was a failure, and Henry determined to take the law into his own hands. There is still in existence a letter of instruction, signed by the King, to Gardiner, the King’s agent at Rome, in which he said: “The King is loth to recur to any remedy except the authority of the See Apostolic [the Pope] if he can find there favour answering to his merit;” but he had not found the “favour” he expected–in other words, licence for bigamy–so he had recourse to another remedy, his own authority. (Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the reign of Henry VIII., vol. iv. n, 5270.)
Wolsey, to whom the King attributed the failure of his cause, was disgraced, and was charged with having violated the Statute of Praemunire by acting as Legate of the Pope. This statute was passed in 1373, during the reign of Richard II., and was intended to prevent benefices being granted by the Pope without the consent of the Crown. An arrangement was arrived at between the Papal Court and the Crown, and this statute practically passed into disuse. Each Archbishop of Canterbury was successively Legate of the Holy See, without a word of objection on the part of the Sovereign. But in Wolsey’s case this indictment was singularly unjust; for Wolsey had been appointed Legate at the expressed desire of the King, and had acted throughout as the King’s agent, and under the King’s direction. He had committed no fault save that of failure. However, Wolsey knew, better than any man, the King’s nature, and that his only chance of escape was to yield. Accordingly he pleaded guilty, threw himself on the King’s mercy, and resigned all his benefices and possessions into the King’s hands. He died a few months after; but the consequences of the offence with which he had been charged, and which he had, for reasons of prudence, admitted, did not die with him. By the advice of Thomas Cromwell, it was argued that the clergy, by submitting to Wolsey’s authority as Legate, had become partakers of his crime, and were therefore subject to the same penalties, namely, imprisonment at the King’s pleasure, and the forfeiture of the whole of their possessions to the Crown; the law officers were therefore directed to make out an indictment against the whole body of the clergy in the Court of King’s Bench.
But Henry was not acting merely out of revenge, nor merely out of avarice; he was hatching a deep plot to get the whole ecclesiastical power into his own hands. Cromwell had persuaded him that the opinion of the learned on the question of the divorce was entirely in the King’s favour; nothing was wanting but the approbation of the Pope: but if that approbation was not to be had, was the King therefore to forego his rights? At present, he said, England was a monster with two heads, but were the King to take the power now usurped by the Pope into his own hands, everything would be well, and the clergy, finding that their lives and possessions were at the King’s mercy, would be ready enough to do his will. Collier says: “There was more than money required of the clergy. The King perceiving the process of the divorce move slowly at Rome, and the issue look unpromising, projected a relief another way. To this purpose he seems to have formed a design of transferring some part of the Pope’s pretensions upon the Crown, and setting up an ecclesiastical supremacy. And now, having gotten the clergy entangled in a prcemunire, he resolved to seize the juncture and push the advantage.”
Accordingly when, on Feb. 7, 1531, the Convocation of Canterbury hastily assembled and offered the King a present of 100,000, as purchase money for a free pardon, to their surprise the present was refused, unless in the decree by which the sum was voted a clause was inserted acknowledging the King as sole protector and supreme head of the Church and clergy of England. Convocation, crushed as it was by the penalties hanging over it, resisted the insertion of this clause; and for three days, negotiations were carried on between the King and Cromwell, through Thomas Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, father of Anne Boleyn, on the one hand, and the Bishops on the other. The King also sent for some of the bishops, and promised them, on the word of a King, that if Convocation would acknowledge him as supreme head of the Church of England, he would never by virtue of that grant assume to himself any more power, jurisdiction, or authority over them than other kings had done before him; nor would he take upon himself to make or promulgate any spiritual law, or exercise any spiritual jurisdiction, nor yet by any kind of means intermeddle with them in altering, changing, or judging of any spiritual business. Soon after, Boleyn and the other lords who were acting for Henry came again to Convocation, and repeated what the King had told these bishops, adding that anyone who should now oppose the King on this point must needs show a great distrust in his majesty’s words after he had made so solemn an oath. The clergy were now, for the most part, giving way, and disposed to grant the King’s demand; but Bishop Fisher, utterly refused, and besought Convocation to consider what mischief might be brought upon the whole Church of Christ by this unseemly and unreasonable grant made to a temporal prince, which had never yet been so much as demanded before, nor could be within the power of any temporal ruler. “And therefore,” said he, “if ye grant the King’s request in this matter, it seemeth to me to portend an imminent and present danger at hand: for what if he should shortly after change his mind, and exercise in deed the supremacy over the Church in this realm? Or what if he should die and his successor challenge continuance of the same? Or what if the crown of this realm should in time fall to an infant or a woman that shall still continue and take the same name upon them? What then shall we do? Whom shall we sue? or where shall we have remedy?” The King’s Counsellors replied that the King demanded no more than might be allowed by the law of God, quantum per legem Dei licet, and they again reminded the clergy of the King’s oath: then, as the holy Bishop confuted their arguments, they left in great anger, saying that whoever would not grant the King’s request was not worthy to be accounted a true and loving subject.
Then the Bishops and other members of Convocation, fearing the King’s anger, resolved to give way and to acknowledge him as supreme head of the Church of England, trusting to his kingly word that he would make no wrong use of the title granted. The Bishop of Rochester, however, again stood to the front; and, seeing that they were fully resolved on compliance and that he was unable to change their minds, insisted that the words quantum per legem Dei licet, “as far as the law of God allows,” should be inserted in the grant. This was done, and the King, seeing that he could not obtain the grant without this condition, had to be content with it, and pardoned the clergy their offence on their promise to pay him 100,000.
But it must not be thought that in allowing the King the title of Supreme Head of the Church of England that Convocation committed itself to an acknowledgement of the supremacy as it was understood later on, nor that they had then revolted from their allegiance to the See of Rome. In the whole course of the discussion there is no mention of the See of Rome. The clergy objected to the title asked for, because it was vague and hitherto unheard of, and because they feared that Henry might use it to encroach upon the liberties and privileges of the English Church. Neither was there any formal decree by which this headship was acknowledged. This was done merely by a clause inserted in the address to the King. In this address they ask pardon for any penalties incurred and offer their gift as an act of gratitude to the King for writing against Luther and for other acts in favour of the Church. After the words “English Church and clergy” comes the following clause: “Of which we recognize his majesty as the singular protector, the only and supreme lord, and, as far as the law of Christ allows, even the supreme head.”
When this form was proposed in Convocation, the Archbishop, Warham, begged of the prelates assembled to allow it to pass, adding that no one was obliged to speak his mind, and that silence would be taken for consent; on this, some one present exclaimed: “Then we are all silent.” No one spoke further, and it was recorded in the minutes of the Convocation that the decree granting the present of 100,000 to the King (in which decree appeared this clause on the supremacy) had passed unanimously.
Thus the Royal Supremacy, in a vague and undefined sense, was acknowledged by the Southern Convocation. At York the Northern Convocation met under the presidency of Archbishop Warham, for the see of York was vacant through the death of Cardinal Wolsey, and a decree voting a present of 18,000 to the King–in which decree was the same clause admitting the Royal Supremacy–was proposed. Tunstall, Bishop of Durham, alone had the courage to speak out. He not only voted against the recognition, but made a spirited and plain-spoken protest which, at his desire, was recorded in the acts. He protested against the title, not because it was a violation of the rights of the Pope, but because it was too vague, and, though capable of a true and right meaning, yet might also bear a false meaning which evil-minded persons would take advantage of. But notwithstanding his protest, the decree was passed.
The clergy soon regretted the step they had taken. Mr. Gairdner says: “It was repented of almost as soon as made, for however theoretically defensible might be the title to which they agreed, and whatever pains they might have made to guard against misconstruction, the clergy could not but feel the moral disadvantage at which they now stood in having yielded at all. Yet they were altogether helpless. Under the existing law of prcemunire they were at the King’s mercy. . . . The clergy, ground down to the last extremity, were anxious that the Bishops should retract in Parliament the acknowledgement of the supremacy made in Convocation, and threatened that unless this was done they would not pay a single penny.” Chapuys, the ambassador of Charles V. in London, wrote to the Emperor: “The clergy are more conscious every day of the great error they committed in acknowledging the King as sovereign of the Church, and they are urgent in Parliament to retract it, otherwise they say they will not pay a penny of the 400,000 crowns. What will be the issue, no one knows.” A protest against any encroachments on the liberties of the Church or on the authority of the Holy See, signed by a great number of the clergy of both provinces, was presented to the King; and a few months after, “Archbishop Warham, to atone for what he had done in Convocation, drew up a solemn protest against all enactments made in that Parliament in derogation of the Pope’s authority, and of the independence of the clergy.”
On August 23, 1532, Archbishop Warham died, and was succeeded, afew months later, by Thomas Cranmer. This man was a chaplain of the Boleyn family, and had distinguished himself by the part he had taken in favour of the divorce; he was thus a fitting and willing instrument for the two ends which the King had in view, viz., the divorce from Queen Catharine, and the completion of his supremacy over the Church. Accordingly Cranmer’s first act after his consecration was to summon the King before him (“a hypocritical farce,” Lingard calls it, as though Cranmer “were ignorant of the object for which he had been made Archbishop,”) to go through the pretence of trying the cause, and finally pronounce that the marriage between Catharine and Henry was null and void; and a few days later Anne Boleyn, who had already been secretly married to Henry, was publicly crowned Queen of England.
In January of the year 1534, Parliament, which was now completely under the management of the King and his minister, Cromwell, enacted that no canons or decrees should be made by Convocation without the King’s consent; that appeals might be made from the bishops to the Court of Chancery, but not to the Pope; that bishops should be made and consecrated without the leave of the Pope; that dispensations usually obtained from Rome should be obtained from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and that all payments hitherto made at Rome, as first-fruits of benefices, should cease.
After this the King required all the clergy, both secular and regular, to take the oath of succession, at the same time making a declaration that the Bishop of Rome had no more authority in England than any other foreign bishop, and that the King was supreme head of the Church of England–the saving clause “as far as is allowed by the law of Christ” being omitted. To refuse to take this oath was misprision of treason and punishable by perpetual imprisonment and forfeiture of all property. This oath was subscribed to by the greater part of the clergy, and a formal declaration against the authority of the Pope was obtained from both Convocations and from the universities. Further, in the autumn of the same year, 1534, Parliament enacted that the King and his heirs should be taken and reputed the only supreme heads on earth of the Church of England (again the saving clause was omitted), and to wish or will maliciously by word or work to deprive the King of this title, was made high treason. Then followed “a series of appalling executions” (we are quoting from Mr. Gairdner) “which completely subdued in England all spirit of resistance, while abroad it filled the mind alike of Romanists and of Protestants with horror and indignation. That the nation disliked the change [of religion] as it disliked the cause of the change [the divorce,] there can be very little doubt. On no other subject during the whole reign have we such overt and repeated expressions of dissatisfaction with the King and his proceedings.” Mr. Green, speaking of this period, says: “A reign of terror, organized with consummate and merciless skill, held England panic-stricken at Henry’s feet.”
We may sum up briefly what has been said on the subject of the Royal Supremacy as follows: (1) It was the King, not the clergy, who was the first and chief mover ; (2) the motive was, not the desire of religious reformation, but the desire of a divorce from his lawful wife; (3) nothing against the Pope’s authority was desired or even contemplated by Convocation; the renunciation of the Pope’s authority was not insisted upon by the King until three years after; (4) the consent of the clergy was extorted by fear of the severest penalties, it was given in silence, unwillingly, and against their convictions, and repented of as soon as given; (5) obedience was enforced by the most cruel laws, notwithstanding which many of the noblest in the country refused to acknowledge the King as head of the Church, even though they knew that they would have to pay for it with their lives.
Now, to return to Bishop Fisher. So long as he was at liberty he had been the boldest of the clergy in their resistance to the changes in matters of religion. When after long delay, the cause of divorce was before the Papal Legate’s Court, as Queen Catharine’s chief defender “there stood forth John Fisher, the light not only of England but of Christendom, to demonstrate that their marriage could not be dissolved by any power, Divine or human. He declared that for this opinion he was ready to lay down his life, adding that as John the Baptist, in olden times, regarded death glorious in a cause of matrimony, and it was not so holy then as it has now become by the shedding of Christ’s Blood, he could not encourage himself more, or face any peril with greater confidence than by taking the Baptist for his own example.” He was equally outspoken in warning Parliament against those who, in attacking the monasteries, sought not the good but the goods of the Church and, as we have seen, when the King claimed the supremacy his firm and eloquent assertion of Peter’s prerogative averted for the time the tame submission of Convocation.
At last Henry determined to use violent measures to silence the holy Bishop, and the affair of the holy Maid of Kent soon furnished a pretext. She had visited the Bishop, and this was sufficient to have his name inserted in the list of her associates, several of whom were sentenced to death, and others declared guilty of misprision of treason. Among the latter the Bishop of Rochester: and although he fully exculpated himself in a letter to his Majesty, he was nevertheless obliged to pay a fine of 300. After the King had espoused Anne Boleyn, and the Parliament had passed the Act of Succession, the Bishop of Rochester, who positively refused to take the oath, was cited by Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, to appear at his palace in Lambeth. The good Bishop, foreseeing the probable result, first made his will, and bequeathed the legacies to his two favourite colleges at Cambridge, to the poor, and his servants and others. He then commenced his journey on horseback. As he rode through Rochester, a vast multitude collected, whom he blessed while they bewailed his misfortunes, some crying that they should never see him again, others denouncing woe unto them that were the occasion of his troubles, and many bewailing the wickedness of the times.
Thus he travelled on to Shooter’s Hill where he alighted from his horse and ordered dinner to be spread for him saying, “He would now make use of his time and dine while he might.” He then remounted his horse, and arrived the same evening in London.
When called before Cranmer and other commissioners, the Archbishop spoke to him of the facility with which every one except himself had taken the oath, and of the offence the King had taken at his refusal; and he intimated that his Majesty had desired the oath to be once more tendered to him, in presence of the Commissioners assembled. After reading it, the holy prelate requested that time might he allowed him for consideration, and he was thereupon remanded to his house in Lambeth Marsh. After five days had expired he presented himself again before the commissioners, and stated that he had perused the oath with as good deliberation as he could; but as they had framed it, he could not with any safety to his conscience subscribe thereto, except altered in some particulars, whereby his own conscience might be the better satisfied, the King pleased, and his actions rather justified and warranted by law.
To this they all answered, “that the King would not in anywise permit that the oath should admit any exceptions, or alterations whatever;” and, continued the Archbishop of Canterbury, “You must answer directly, whether you will, or you will not subscribe.” Then said the Bishop of Rochester, “If you will needs have me answer directly, my answer is, that, forasmuch as my own conscience cannot be satisfied, I absolutely refuse the oath.” Upon this he was immediately committed to the Tower.
Ten days after, Sir Richard Morrison and several others were sent into the county of Kent with orders to seize all property belonging to the Bishop wherever they could discover any. These persons, armed with the King’s warrant, arrived at Rochester, and immediately swept away everything they could lay their hands upon, The books which had been given many years before to St. John’s College, although still in the custody of the Bishop, they packed in thirty-two large casks. They also seized a bag containing four hundred pounds in cash, three hundred of which had been left by a predecessor, to remain for ever a depositum to the see of Rochester, in the custody of the Bishop for the time being, against any sudden emergency which might occur. To this sum the good prelate had himself added one hundred pounds. Among the articles which attracted the notice of these Commissioners was a strong chest bound with iron, in the Bishop’s oratory; this they immediately concluded contained his treasure, and to do away with all suspicion of unfair dealing towards the King, witnesses were called in. Some force was necessary to open it, when to the astonishment of all present the whole produce of the chest consisted of one hair shirt and two disciplines.
The Bishop’s prison was in the Bell Tower, and the holy man was confined in a room in the upper story. The apartment was spacious and airy and perhaps the best prison in the Tower, and used for prisoners of distinction: and as the only ingress or egress was through the lieutenant’s house adjoining, the prisoner was doubly secure. From the windows there was–and is, for the room is even now much the same as when the martyred Bishop occupied it, though the surroundings are much changed–a view of the Thames below London Bridge, of the Church of All Hallows and of Tower Hill; and the Carthusians on the way to their execution at Tyburn passed within easy view. The room was not a bad one for a prison, as prisons were in those days, yet to the aged Bishop, feeble and emaciated as he was, with a ” wasted liver” and tendency to consumption, the cold and damp of the thick walls were little less than down-right torture. In a letter to Cromwell, dated December 22, 1534, the martyr begs the Secretary to to give him a little alleviation. His clothes, he says, were worn to shreds and could scarcely be kept on his back; not that he cared for his appearance, he would gladly suffer his rent suit if it would but keep his body warm. He begs also that he may have such provisions as are suitable, for with his delicate constitution and exceedingly weak digestion it was necessary for him to be very careful in his diet. There was another want still moie pressing庸ood for the soul He was not allowed to say Mass in his prison nor to see a priest nor even to have books save only his breviary, and he earnestly requests that he may have some priest, at the choice of the lieutenant, “to hear my confession against this holy time,” and also that he may borrow some books to stir up his devotion. How far these requests were granted is not known, but the letter gives us an insight into the severity of the Blessed Fisher’s sufferings. On the other hand, it would appear that while the Bishop was seriously ill, the King sent him some physicians, and also provided him with better fare.
Though deprived of his books, Blessed Fisher wrote three works during his imprisonment. The first was called A Spiritual Consolation, and was addressed to his sister Elizabeth, a nun at Dartford in Kent; the second was also written for her and was called The Ways of Perfect Religion; the third is a Treatise on the Necessity, Fruits and Method of Prayer.
The Bishop was committed to the Tower in April, 1534, and till November he lay there, suffering all the penalties for his refusal to take the oath of succession with the clause annexed to it, as though he had been legally convicted of misprision of treason. But during these seven months he had not been brought to trial. It appears, even, that the oath submitted to him, and which he was required to take, was not the one imposed by the statute, and therefore his imprisonment and the forfeiture of his goods were not legal. This difficulty, however, was easily got over, for when Parliament met in November a special Act was passed attainting him, in company of a few others, by name, for the very offence for which he had already suffered the penalties for seven months. Moreover, an Act was passed ratifying what had been done by the King’s Commissioners and declaring that the oath which they had imposed was the very one which had been intended when the Act of Succession was passed in the previous session. Though the Bishop of Rochester had refused the oath on the 17th of April and again on the 1st of May, yet, by the Act of Attainder, the penalities, as regards the loss of goods, were to be enforced from the 1st of March last, and his see and bishopric of Rochester was to be void and vacant as though he were actually dead, on the 2nd of January following.
It was also enacted in the same session that the King, our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia, and shall have and enjoy annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the title and style thereof, as all honours, dignities, immunities, profits and commodities to the said dignity of supreme head of the said Church belonging and appertaining. And it was made high treason for any person after the first of February next “maliciously to wish, will, or desire by words or writing, or by craft imagine, invent, practise, or attempt any bodily harm to be done or committed to the King’s most royal person, the Queen’s, or their heirs apparent, or deprive them or any of them of their dignity, title, or name of their royal estates, or slanderously and maliciously publish and pronounce, by express writing or words, that the King our sovereign lord should be heretic, schismatic, tyrant, infidel, &c.”
It was under this statute that Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More were tried and condemned.
During the spring of the following year, the servile bishops, together with some apostate monks and others of the clergy, instigated by Cromwell, took every opportunity of debasing the Pope’s authority and of exciting among the people a contempt for his person. Not only did they preach most violently and insultingly against him, but they also circulated low and ribald verses and had coarse plays acted, all tending to bring the Pope into ridicule. On the 29th April the Carthusian Priors were tried for that they did on 26th April, at the Tower of London, openly declare and say that the King and sovereign lord is not supreme head on earth of the Church of England: and on May 4th they suffered the barbarous penalties of high treason–the proto-martyrs, in England, for Christ’s Vicar upon earth.
On May 7th, Cromwell and other members of the Council met in the lieutenant’s house adjoining the Bell Tower, and Fisher was brought before them and examined. Little is known of what passed on this occasion, but it would seem that some words of the Bishop’s at this examination formed the grounds of his accusation for high treason. Two days after, the Bishop was subjected to another and fuller examination, but he does not seem to have compromised himself. Dr. Hall, his first biographer, tells us of a “crafty and subtle device” which was practised upon the holy Bishop to induce him to take the oath. After the Commissioners had pressed him very earnestly, thinking that he was much influenced by Sir Thomas More’s refusal, they told him that Sir Thomas had taken the oath, and would shortly be restored to full liberty and to his former favour with the King. Fisher, not seeing the deceit, was sorely grieved for More’s weakness; but he still persisted in his refusal. The same deceit was practised upon Sir Thomas More at his examination: he was told that the Bishop of Rochester had taken the oath and was urged to follow his example. As it had been given out already that the Bishop had submitted, and this report had reached the ears of Sir Thomas through his family and others who were permitted to visit him, Sir Thomas believed this statement of the Commissioners to be partly true; nevertheless he still held out. Happily the two faithful prisoners found means of communicating with each other, and the sorrow which each had felt at the supposed fall of the other was dispelled.
Dr. Hall also relates that about the beginning of May the King sent Rich, the solicitor general, with a secret message. And “this messenger, being come to the presence of this blessed Father in his prison, did there his errand, as it seemed, according to the King’s commandments, for it was not long after his return to the King with an answer of his message, but an indictment of high treason was framed against him, and he arraigned and condemned at the bar, upon the talk that had passed between them so secretly in the prison.”
On May 20, Pope Paul III., who had been informed of all that had passed, created John Fisher Cardinal, with the title of St. Vitalis. His Holiness thought that such a public mark of his esteem might induce the King to forego his sanguinary proceedings against the holy prelate; but he little knew the ruthless temper of Henry, who learning that the Holy Father had sent forward the Cardinal’s hat, immediately despatched a messenger to Calais to stop the bearer until his Majesty’s pleasure should be known. The King also sent his Secretary, Cromwell, to inquire of Fisher what he would do, if the Cardinal’s hat should be bestowed upon him. To which the Bishop replied, “Sir, I know myself to be so far unworthy of any such dignity, that I think of nothing less; but if any such thing should happen, assure yourself I should improve that favour to the best advantage I could in assisting the Holy Catholic Church of Christ, and in that respect would receive it upon my knees.”
Cromwell soon reported this answerto his royal master, who exclaimed in anger, “Well, let the Pope send him a hat when he will, he shall wear it on his shoulders, for I will leave him never a head to set it on.” It is thus not unlikely that Fisher’s elevation to the Cardinalate, intended by the Pope as a means of preserving his life, really hastened his death.
On 1st June a special commission was directed to Sir Thomas Audley, the Chancellor, and to the Duke of Suffolk, the Earl of Wiltshire, Cromwell and others, for the Cardinal’s trial; but owing to severe illness he was not brought before the Commissioners till the 17th June. On that day he was taken from the Tower and brought to the Court of King’s Bench at Westminster under charge of Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower, encompassed, as Dr. Hall relates, with a huge number of halberts, bills, and other weapons about him, and the axe of the Tower borne before him with the edge from him, as the manner is. And because he was not yet so well recovered that he was able to walk by land all the way on foot, he rode part of the way on horseback, in a black cloth gown, and the rest he was carried by water, for that he was not well able to ride for weakness.
He was then indicted that he maliciously, traitorously, and falsely had said these words: “The King our sovereign lord is not supreme head on earth of the Church of England.”
Mr. Rich was the sole witness brought against him, and he deposed, in the presence of a jury, as to the conversation which had taken place in the Tower between himself and the Bishop. This evidence naturally surprised the venerable prisoner, and thereupon he recounted to the Court what had passed between them in the prison, using these words, “He (Rich) told me that the King willed him to assure me on his honour and on the word of a King that whatever I should say to him by this secret messenger, I should abide no danger, no peril for it, neither that any advantage should be taken against me for the same; no, though my words were never so directly against the statute; seeing it was but a declaration of my mind secretly to him, as to his own person; and for the messenger himself, he gave me this faithful promise that he would never utter my words to any man living, but to the King alone. . . . Methinks it is very hard justice to hear the messenger’s accusation, and to allow the same as a sufficient testimony against me in case of treason.” To this the messenger made no direct answer. But neither any pleadings nor the want of sufficient testimony moved the judges, and by their influence a verdict of guilty was soon recorded, and the Lord Chancellor asked the Bishop if he had any more to say for himself. The persecuted Bishop replied, “Truly, my lord, if that which I have before spoken be not sufficient, I have no more to say but only to desire Almighty God to forgive them that have thus condemned me, for I think they know not what they have done.” The Lord Chancellor then pronounced sentence as in cases of high treason, and the holy Bishop once more asked leave to speak, which being granted, he used nearly the following words, “My lords, I am here condemned before you of high treason for denial of the King’s supremacy over the Church of England, but by what order of justice I leave to God, who is the searcher both of the King his Majesty’s conscience and yours; nevertheless, being found guilty, as it is termed, I am and must be contented with all that God shall send, to whose will I wholly refer and submit myself. And now to tell you more plainly my mind, touching this matter of the King’s supremacy, I think indeed, and always have thought, and do now lastly affirm, that his Grace cannot justly claim any such supremacy over the Church of God, as he now taketh upon him; neither has it ever been, or heard of, that any temporal prince, before his days, hath presumed to that dignity; wherefore, if the King will now adventure himself in proceeding in this strange and unwonted case, so no doubt but he shall deeply incur the grievous displeasure of the Almighty, to the great damage of his own soul, and of many others, and to the utter ruin of this realm committed to his charge, whereof will ensue some sharp punishment at His hands; wherefore, I pray God his Grace may remember himself in good time, and hearken to good counsel for the preservation of himself and his realm, and the quietness of all Christendom.” At the conclusion of this discourse he was reconducted to the Tower in the same manner as he had been brought from it, only that now the edge of the axe was turned towards him. The interval of four days which intervened between his trial and execution he devoted solely to prayer and inner preparation for his last passage. The following account of his death and execution is taken from Dr. Hall’s narrative:
“Thus, while this blessed Bishop lay daily expecting the hour of his death, the King, who no less desired his death than himself looked for it, caused at last a writ of execution to be made, and brought to Sir Edmond Walsingham, Lieutenant of the Tower. But where by his judgement at Westminster he was condemned as ye have heard before, to drawing, hanging, and quartering, as traitors always used to be, yet was he spared from that cruel execution, wherefore order was taken that he should be led no further than Tower Hill, and there to have his head struck off. After the Lieutenant had received this bloody writ, he commanded certain persons, whose service was to be used in that business, to be ready against the next day in the morning; and because it was very late in the night, and the prisoner asleep, he was loath to disease him of his rest for that time; and so in the morning (June 22, 1535), before five of the clock, he came to him in his chamber in the Bell Tower. Finding him yet asleep in his bed, he awoke him, showing him that he was come to him on a message from the King, and after saying that he should remember himself to be an old man, and that for age he could not, by course of nature, live long; he told him at last that he was come to signify unto him that the King’s pleasure was he should suffer death that forenoon.
“‘Well,’ quoth this blessed Father, ‘if this be your errand, you bring me no great news, for I have long time looked for this message. I most humbly thank his Majesty that it pleaseth him to rid me of all this worldly business, and I thank you also for your tidings. But I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant,’ said he, ‘when is my hour that I must go hence?’ ‘Your hour,’ said the Lieutenant, ‘must be nine of the clock.’ ‘And what hour is it now?’ said he. ‘It is now about five,’ said the Lieutenant. ‘Well then,’ said he, ‘let me, by your patience, sleep an hour or two, for I have slept very little this night; and yet, to tell you the truth, not for any fear of death, I thank God, but by reason of my great infirmity and weakness.’ ‘The King’s further pleasure is,’ said the Lieutenant, ‘that you should use as little speech as may be, especially anything touching his Majesty, whereby the people should have any cause to think of him or his proceedings otherwise than well.’ ‘For that,’ said he, ‘you shall see me order myself as, by God’s grace, neither the King, nor any man else, shall have occasion to mislike of my words.’
“With which answer the Lieutenant departed from him, and so the prisoner, falling again to rest, slept soundly two hours and more. And after he was awaked, he called to his man to help him up; but first of all he commanded him to take away the shirt of hair he always wore, and to lay him forth a clean white shirt and all his best apparel, saying, ‘Dost thou not mark that this is our marriage day, and that it behoveth us, therefore, to use more cleanliness for solemnity of the marriage sake?’ About nine of the clock the Lieutenant came again to his prisoner, and finding him almost ready, said that he was come now for him. ‘I will wait upon you straight,’ said he, ‘as fast as this thin body of mine will give me leave;’ then said he to his man, ‘Reach me my furred tippet to put about my neck.’ ‘O my lord,’ said the Lieutenant, ‘what need you be so careful of your health for this little time, being, as yourself knoweth, not much above an hour?’ ‘I think no otherwise,’ said this blessed Father, ‘but yet, in the meantime, I will keep myself as well as I can till the very time of my execution; for I tell you truth, though I have, I thank our Lord, a very good desire, and a willing mind, to die at this present, and so trust to His infinite mercy and goodness He will continue it; yet will I not willingly hinder my health, in the meantime, one minute of an hour, but still prolong the same as long as I can by such reasonable ways and means as Almighty God hath provided for me.’ With that, taking a little book in his hand, which was a New Testament lying by him, he made a cross on his forehead, and went out of his prison door with the Lieutenant, being so weak that he was scarce able to go down stairs. Wherefore, at the foot of the stairs, he was taken up in a chair between two of the Lieutenant’s men, and carried to the Tower gate, with a great number of weapons about him, to be delivered to the Sheriffs of London for execution. And as they were come to the uttermost precinct of the liberty of the Tower, they rested there with him a space, till such time as one was sent before to know in what readiness the Sheriffs were to receive him: during which space he rose out of his chair, and standing on his feet, leaning his shoulder to the wall, and lifting his eyes towards heaven, opened his little book in his hand, and said, ‘O Lord, this is the last time that ever I shall open this book, let some comfortable place now chance unto me, whereby I, Thy poor servant, may glorify Thee in this my last hour;’ and with that, looking into the book, the first thing that came to his sight was these words ; ‘Now this is eternal life ; that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent. I have glorified Thee on the earth; I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do And now glorify Thou Me, O Father, with Thyself, with the glory which I had, before the world was, with Thee (St. John xvii.).’
“And with that he shut the book together, and said, “Here is even learning enough for me to my life’s end.’ And so, the Sheriffs being ready for him, he was taken up again among certain of the Sheriffs’ men, with a new and much greater company of weapons than was before, and carried to the scaffold on the Tower Hill, otherwise called East Smithfield, himself praying all the way, and recording upon the words which he before had read: and when he was come to the foot of the scaffold, they that carried him offered to help him up the stairs. But then said he, ‘Nay, masters, seeing I am come so far, let me alone, and ye shall see me shift for myself well enough;’ and so went up the stairs without any help, so lively that it was a marvel to them that knew before of his debility and weakness; but as he was mounting up the stairs, the south-east sun shined very bright in his face, whereupon he said to himself these words, lifting up his hands: ‘Come ye to Him, and be enlightened: and your faces shall not be confounded (Psalm xxxiii. 6).’
“By that time he was upon the scaffold, it was about ten of the clock, when the executioner, being ready to do his office, kneeled down to him, as the fashion is, and asked him forgiveness. ‘I forgive thee,’ said he, ‘with all my heart, and I trust thou shalt see me overcome this storm lustily.’
“Then was his gown and tippet taken from him, and he stood in his doublet and hose, in sight of all the people, whereof was no small number assembled to see his execution. There was to be seen a long, lean, and slender body, having on it little other substance besides skin and bones, insomuch as most part of the beholders marvelled much to see a living man so far consumed, for he seemed a very image of death; and as it were death in a man’s shape, using a man’s voice; and therefore it was thought the King was something cruel to put such a man to death, being near his end, and to kill that which was dying already, except it were for pity sake to rid him of his pain.
“When the innocent and holy man was come upon the scaffold, he spake to the people to the following effect:–‘Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ’s holy Catholic Church, and I thank God hitherto my stomach hath served very well thereunto, so that yet I have not feared death; wherefore I desire you all to help and assist in your prayers, that at the very point and instant of death’s stroke, I may stand stedfast, without fainting in any one point of the Catholic faith, free from any fear. And I beseech Almighty God, of His infinite goodness, to save the King and this realm, and that it may please Him to hold His hand over it, and send the King good counsel.’ These or the like words he spake with such a cheerful countenance, such a stout and constant courage, and such a reverend gravity, that he appeared to all men not only void of fear, but also glad of death. Besides this, he uttered his words so distinctly, and with so loud and clear a voice, that the people were astonished thereat, and noted it for a miraculous thing to hear so plain and audible a voice come from so weak and sickly an old body. Then after these words by him uttered, he kneeled down upon both his knees, and said certain prayers, among which one was the hymn of Te Deum laudamus, to the end: ‘In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped.’ Then came the executioner, and bound a handkerchief about his eyes; and so this holy Father, lifting up his hands and heart towards heaven, said a few prayers, which were not long, but fervent and devout; which being ended, he laid his head down on the middle of a little block, when the executioner, being ready with a sharp and heavy axe, cut asunder his slender neck at one blow, which bled so abundantly that many wondered to see so much blood issue out of so slender and lean a body.
“The headless corpse was immediately stripped naked by the executioner, and left exposed upon the scaffold until eight o’clock in the evening, when it was carried by two of the men who had guarded it into Barking churchyard, and thrown without ceremony into a grave which they had dug with their halberts; and on the following day his head, being first parboiled, was fixed upon a pole and set up upon London Bridge, where it remained fourteen days, and was then thrown into the river to make room for the head of Sir Thomas More. It was said that the longer it remained, the more ruddy and venerable it seemed to grow. His body also was taken up and re-interred in the Tower.”
Thus ended a noble and saintly life! Thus perished one of England’s greatest sons a victim to a tyrant’s lust and ambition, a martyr giving glorious witness to the sanctity of the marriage bond and to the supremacy of Christ’s Vicar on earth!